Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Cooperation" at the Point of a Gun

I recently purchased a rental house in a suburb of Houston. (For now, the city will remain nameless.) When I called the electric company to have power turned on, I was informed that I needed a permit from the city. And in order for the city to issue a permit for me to turn on the power to my house, I had to have a licensed inspector or one of the city's goons inspect the property. (The city official didn't actually use the word "goons". That was my interpretation.)

The city official also informed me that I needed a permit to own rental property in their jurisdiction!?! Being the obsequious citizen that I am, I dutifully completed the requisite form--after all, I had inadvertently "ratted" on myself. Yesterday I received a pretty piece of cardboard that "bestows" upon me the right to rent my property. I am truly humbled that they have bequeathed such honor upon me and allow me to transform a vacant house into an attractive residence.

I am not completely certain as to the rationale behind these inane requirements. I didn't ask the city official to whom I spoke, primarily because I was afraid of what I might say in response. I don't have much experience in such matters, but it seems to me that when you are in the process of groveling at the feet of some bureaucrat for permission to use your property, it is generally wise to refrain from comments that might imply that you think you are talking to a petty little tyrant. Otherwise, they might demonstrate just how petty and tyrannical they can be. So I bit my tongue and wrapped a few more pieces of duct tape around my head to keep it from exploding.

The letter I received along with my permit stated:
Thank you for your prompt cooperation with the City of X's new Rental Registration program. By implementing this program, one of the City's goals is to identify problems that may occur in rental units and provide early notification to the owner. We hope, by doing this, the problem will be brought to your attention at the earliest stage; thus making the cost of repairs less than if the problem goes undetected for an extended period of time.
I am tempted to contact the city to point out that my "cooperation" was prompted by their not so subtle threats. As an accompanying document states, failure to register can result in prosecution in municipal court. My "cooperation" was no different from the victim of an armed robber "voluntarily" handing over his wallet. However, as I noted above, it probably wouldn't be wise to to taunt armed bureaucrats.

I am also greatly relieved to know that city officials will be keeping an eye on my property, and will alert me if any repairs are needed. I had assumed that I would be responsible for making periodic inspections of the home. After all, it is my property. But with city officials doing this for me, I can spend my time doing more enjoyable things, such as writing about patronizing public officials.

I will admit that during my due diligence on this property, I did not look into needing a permit to have the electricity turned on. I will also admit that, despite knowing that local government officials can be nasty little pricks, I did not envision that I would need to seek such permission. After all, state officials routinely try to prevent power companies from turning someone's power off.

Perhaps what annoys me most about this is that I won't have much say in city matters. Since I do not reside in this little fiefdom, I can't vote there. I suppose I could go to city council and raise a ruckus about oppression of real estate moguls, but I seriously doubt that that would have any impact. They would probably tell me to shut up and get a permit for the azaleas I intend to plant.

So, while I am trying to engage in my own economic stimulation--and I mean that literally, I am trying to stimulate my economic situation--city officials are busy making it more difficult. While I am trying to create jobs--the renovation of the property will provide work for about a dozen people--the government is making me jump through their asinine hoops.

I realize that my experience is probably small potatoes compared to what many property owners must endure. But that doesn't change the fact that city officials have arbitrarily imposed their standards and values upon me. The purpose of government is to protect individual rights, including property rights, not make us beg for permission to turn on the lights.

I had thought--obviously naively--that perhaps city officials would throw a parade in my honor after I renovated the house and helped improve the neighborhood. Instead, they welcomed me with red tape and a gun.

Note: Due to a clerical error on my part, this was not posted this morning as intended.


Moataz said...

You need a permit from the city to turn the electricity on! sheesh talk about messed bureaucracy.

Brian Phillips said...

When I found out I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Rational Education said...

as a rental house owner myself I can sympathize with your frustration. It is funny how governments at all levels choose to imbibe the statist policies that they see elsewhere (universal health is such a case at an entire country level) -it is like they cannot bear to see an area of citizens' lives that they cannot control and regulate. It is like the career politicians with nothing much to do in life are the proverbial "empty mind is devil's workshop" and cook up new legislations and rules by concoting "problems" that they need to control -but in reality only harass law abiding citizens.

Raleigh only a few months back decided to start a registration process for rental properties, perhaps after the politicians studied towns like the one you mention and noticing another area that they could put their tentacles around. We have rented out this property that we own for the last 10 years, ever since we moved out and built another home. In the 10 years as owner of the property I have regularly inspected, (as you have pointed that any property owner would) repaired and maintained the house -it was in my interest to maintain the property well. The decisions were made by our independent judgement, taking into consideration several factors, including budgeting and cost-benefit analysis, etc. Some projects of urgency would be taken up immediately while others that could wait were planned accordingly. At no point would any physical harm to human life be something I would debate for a moment (there was never such an emergency because the property was well maintained). It was also in my interest to get any small A/C, plumbing, electric, yard problems, etc. that my renter called about fixed immediately. A good relationship with my renter was in my interests because it meant that they would stay longer and I did not have to go thru the process and expenses of getting a new renter.

However on first hearing of the registration thing, I wanted to sell the place. The reason is that I do not think the process is going to stop at just registration and paying $100 or so annually. That would be unjust as it is -but one would put it in one's budgeting I guess. What I worry about is that they will start building asinine regulations on top of this initial process, making it onerous for most landlords to keep up. What if in future a municipal official comes to my property and gives me an arbitrary list of things that he decides that need fixing? (If I remember correctly one of your posts brilliantly analysed this very aspect in apartment buildings.) End result -many smaller or marginal landlords will simply cash out -especially on the lower end. Thus if those putting in the legislation thought they would make the scene better -they will actually hurt the very people at the lower end for rental homes within what they can afford -the very individuals for whom politicians take every opportunity to claim they are trying to make things more "equitable".

Brian Phillips said...

Jasmine--You make some very good points. It is in your self-interest to maintain your property, find good tenants, etc. And you have done this without any "help" from government officials.

I'm not sure that politicians always concoct problems, but they are certainly quick to exaggerate a problem. For example, if a few children get hurt or killed by some product, legislators are quick to propose new rules and regulations. It is certainly a tragedy when a child is killed, but unless the manufacturer was negligent or engaged in fraud, it is no business of the government.

I share your fear of more controls. I have since learned that the property is subject to annual inspections by the city. Who knows what arbitrary "defects" they will find? I had planned to hold onto the property for a while, but I may need to reconsider.